Wednesday October 5th, 2011

While thinking we should retire the question, "Are you going to retire?"...

I'm a lifelong tennis player and fan, and even though I consider myself knowledgeable about the game, I don't understand all of the angst about the offseason. I know players must enter a certain amount of tournaments, but if they really want three months off at the end of the year, can't they just fill their "quota" from January-September then take October-December off? Also, did anyone else notice the irony of Andy Roddick calling for a players' union from the site of an EXHIBITION he played? If he's that exhausted from the tennis calendar, then either don't play exos or don't complain about the calendar! -- Scott, Jacksonville, Fla.

• I can't tell you how many readers start questions with this sentiment: "I consider myself a devoted fan but I don't understand the ..." That, in itself, is problematic.

Top players are required to compete in various events throughout the season. It's not about hitting a quota; it's about hitting specific tournaments. The ATP rulebook states the top 30 in the rankings must play at least eight of nine Masters 1000 events. So Roger Federer, for instance, can't simply pack it up after the U.S. Open even if he's played every week prior. Body willing, he must also play in China, Paris and the ATP event in London.

A few of you have asked about the irony of players bemoaning the length of the season while "competing" in an exhibition. I agree that "the optics aren't good," as they say in political consulting. But, really, I don't think there's much hypocrisy. Exhibitions are good fun, a chance for players to perform in under-served markets and, yes, earn some freelance income. But it hardly qualifies as competition. These are basically practice sets, with no one going at full speed. There's a big difference in intensity and required exertion between an ATP match/tournament and a Tuesday exhibition in Omaha or Macau or wherever.

My pet theory, based entirely on anecdote and observation and not data: Part of the injury and illness epidemic in tennis owes not to exertion on the court, but the logistics of the Tours. Players are competing all over the globe. They're eating at odd hours. There are rain delays and scheduling quirks and erratic start times (see U.S. Open, 2011) and the inconveniences of travel. As anyone who travels often for business knows, your immune system -- and, by extension, your body -- isn't at its best when you're jet-lagged and sleeping in hotels and scarfing down 2 a.m. room service and changing climates and altitude each week. And no amount of courtesy cars and Nobu meals and on-site massages cures that.

We hear all the time about players in the '70s and '80s who competed year-round -- often entering in doubles and singles draw -- and stayed healthy. Since then, the nature of the sport has changed, athleticism has improved, racket and string technology have encouraged players to take bigger cuts, etc. But I also contend that playing in Hilton Head one week and Atlanta the next and Boca the week after that is a lot easier on the body than, say, the New York-Serbia-Bangkok-Beijing leg that Novak Djokovic could have played in the span of three weeks.

This week Andy Roddick spoke again about the possibility of a players' union. Those of us long enough in the tooth to remember when Saved by the Bell was Good Morning, Miss Bliss may recall Wayne Ferreira's 2003 effort to organize players into a more unified body. I haven't heard of the International Men's Tennis Association (IMTA) since, so I'm guessing Wayne's efforts never materialized. Additionally, I remember many players expressing lukewarm support for the idea, except for Lleyton Hewitt (who had a blood feud/pending lawsuit with the ATP during this time). Do you think the players will be more successful in forming a union this time around? -- Will Evans, San Diego

• We try to keep the ground rules to a minimum here, but anyone referencing Good Morning, Miss Bliss gets special dispensation. (Set in Indiana, I'll have you know.) The IMTA was not successful, mostly because the players didn't have much in the way of unity or leverage. Bless Wayne Ferreira, but he did not have the standing or clout of, say, Andre Agassi or Roger Federer. The movement was also being led largely by journeymen players.

In this case, the top-five draws (the Big Four plus Roddick) in the sport appear to be unified and firmly committed. What's more, the timing appears right to examine the system. The search is on for a new ATP CEO. The directors of smaller tournaments -- easy to forget, they're ATP constituents as well -- are largely dissatisfied. The majors are more successful than ever. A lot of chess pieces and the positioning is intriguing.

Speaking of Jon Jones, tennis needs a Dana White. MMA was around for a long time before the UFC, and it wasn't very big at all. Now ... -- Brandon, Chicago

• For the uninitiated: White is the, um, colorful head/mastermind of the UFC, an outspoken figure who bears much responsibility for the success of the organization -- and for the sport of mixed martial arts in general. He's deeply polarizing, but the explosive growth of UFC speaks for itself.

Me? I like the guy. He's a Twitter maniac. He's a brutally straight shooter. He curses. He wears tight T-shirts and a belt buckle adorned with a skull. He's not averse to calling out even the top fighters if he's displeased with their attitude. Last year, he was unhappy with the showboating antics of Anderson Silva (the Federer of the UFC) and check this out. Could you imagine a tennis chief making these remarks?

Anyway, the previous ATP CEO, Etienne de Villiers, was run out of town, in part because the players thought he was a grandstander. The current (outgoing) CEO, Adam Helfant, has been criticized for being insufficiently visible. (Note Darren Cahill's remarks at the 6:30 mark on ESPN during the U.S. Open.) I think tennis could (desperately) use a forceful and outspoken commissioner, a presence who could cut through some of the nonsense and make some of the common-sense decisions that, when allowed to go unmade, hamper the sport. The problem: Which fiefdom is willing to surrender that power?

How's this for a sign of tennis' increasing globalization: Not only is Andy Roddick the last U.S. man to win a major, but he's also the last man from any of the four countries hosting a Grand Slam to win one. Since then, it's been Switzerland, Spain, Argentina, Russia and Serbia. Maybe there is a cause-and-effect here: The U.S., France, Australia and Great Britain, four traditional powers in tennis, put too much pressure on their players to restore past glory. The players respond in kind by failing in big moments. Murray and Richard Gasquet, in particular, are good examples of guys who seem to suffer under high expectations. Conversely, someone like Djokovic doesn't have to worry about living up to history because there is no history of tennis in Serbia. Any thoughts? -- Phil, Philadelphia

• What about this explanation? In the four Slam-hosting countries, you have what are essentially welfare states, "tennis governments" bloated by Slam revenues, fostering a sense of entitlement and complacency. In Spain and Argentina and Serbia et al., you have a small government and little infrastructure. Those countries cannot commit millions to grassroots initiatives or coaching and travel. The players who want to make it big must truly want to make it. They must, necessarily, be self-sufficient and industrious and enterprising and willing to sacrifice. Unable to rely on wild cards at their home major (and the questionable wild card swaps at the others), they must win matches outright. A system that is, on its face, unfair to have-nots ends up being a disguised blessing.

Not unrelated: What do we make of the sudden success of Donald Young? The Fox News analysis might go like this: When receiving assistance from "big government" -- the wild cards, the subsidies, the safety nets -- his motivation was questionable and his progress was hindered. When he was cut off from "public spending" and had to act on his own and innovate, he was able to flourish.

Still no article about Mike Bryan's $10,000 fine for assaulting an official! -- John Harris, Philadelphia

• We're waiting for the appeal. Then we have every expectation that Mike will give his side of the story. The cynic will say the moral of this story is that the media and the tennis establishment are filled with racist misogynists. I say the moral of this story is that reputation matters. Mike Bryan has been an exemplary player for more than a decade, the first guy to show up at a free clinic, the last guy stay signing autographs. There's a lot of accrued good will, and it comes in handy when he runs afoul of the law.

This is a response to the use of a shot clock during matches. This has actually been used before. If you watch the '86 French Open final between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, there is indeed a clock in both corners of the court counting down and stopping when the players start playing again. I'm surprised no one else has caught this before. This is not a new thing, so why not bring it back? -- John, Chicago

• I did not know this. Does anyone have more details?

Did you happen to catch Federer's comment after the Aussie-Swiss Davis Cup tie about it being unfortunate that the last match finished in near-darkness? "It's a tough call. I've lost some big matches due to darkness and I always have the feeling the referees leave it too late." Now, we know what "match" he's talking about and apparently the sting of that loss is still there. But if Fed fans who think their guy walks on water can't understand what people don't like about him, this is Exhibit A. Yet another backhanded comment intended to denigrate Nadal's achievements. -- David, Clearwater, Fla.

• He's clearly referring to a three-set loss to Radek Stepanek in the 2002 Gstaad event.

Has there ever been another time where none of the top-four women in the world is a defending Grand Slam champ? -- Jeremy Redding, Camp Hill, Pa.

• This was the question from last week for which I sought the help of the WTA's Kevin Fischer. He came through:

Of the three first-time Slam winners on the women's side this year, which one do you see as the likeliest to win another one next year? -- Charles, Austin, Texas

• Good question. Li Na and Petra Kvitova haven't exactly used their titles as catalysts to continue achieving. Now it's up to Sam Stosur. Li has always been a streaky player. She could win in Australia (as she nearly did in 2011) or flame out in the first round, as she did at the U.S. Open and the other day in Beijing. Kvitova looked like a world-beater at Wimbledon. She looked like a confused baseliner in New York. High hopes for Stosur.

Which of these three do you think will win a major before the other two: Federer, Murray or Juan Martin del Potro? -- Don Daniels, Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.

• I think you have to stick with Federer. Del Potro is still not near his 2009 level. He's young and he has a track record, but the natives are getting restless. Murray is, sadly, increasingly looking like a career bridesmaid. A talented player but too much simply has to go right for him to win. With Federer, OK, he's 30, he's gone two years without a major, etc. But he's still Federer. And he plays well against the current King. Here's a bar-room topic with, of course, no right answer. If Federer had closed out Djokovic last month in New York, how does he fare against Nadal in the final?

Jon, you may already know this and I know you were joking about the USTA stepladder remark, but the NCAA has already beaten the USTA to the punch. There IS an official stepladder used for net-cutting ceremonies during the NCAA Tournament. I kid you not. -- John Feinstein, Potomac, Md.

• Wait? An organization committed to the ideals of amateurism would go to such heights (pardon the pun) for revenue? Can that be right?

As for tennis, maybe this is a way to help subsidize the construction of the roof. If the USTA can sell sponsorship to Lu Biscuits and Valspar Paints and the various other corporations whose placards figure so prominently in the decor of the stadium, is it not possible to sell sponsorships to the various steel and ballbearings companies that could be involved in roof construction? Also, I recently flew over an arena (the Target Center in Minneapolis, perhaps?) that had a roof adorned with a corresponding corporate logo. Clearly this was done for the benefit of folks like me, who see this image while flying. Given the Tennis Center's proximity to LaGuardia Airport, surely the USTA could offer this real estate to a potential roof sponsor as well.

• New York readers, here's a tennis event Thursday night. Feel free to stop by.

• Kabir Kathuria, of San Jose, Calif.: "Here's an excellent response from Michael Stich on the player complaints. I agree with him that players are unfairly complaining about the abundance of match play. I'm against the idea of a union or a strike. That would bring more problems than it would solve. The players' grievances are relatively mild in comparison with what most of us deal with at our jobs for much less in compensation. I work at an office job that puts my health at risk (I can't work out because I'm in the office 90 hours a week and I suffer from chronic back pain) but I don't ever contemplate the luxury of going on strike. As the saying goes, somebody ought to tell Nadal/Murray, 'That's why you make the big bucks, son.' "

• Barbara Beck, Rochester, Minn.: "I'm wondering why no one seems annoyed by the grunting in men's matches. I'm guessing it may be a matter of the difference in pitch of the grunts. If the umpires start applying the hindrance rule in women's matches, they should do it in men's matches as well."

• Joe Johnson of Allentown, Pa.: "In case you have not already read it, I thought that you might enjoy this interview with one of your all-time favorites, Jana Novotna."

• Here's a nice piece on James Blake.

• ESPN's Renée Richards documentary, which debuted Tuesday, will re-air Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

• Tickets are on sale for the BNP Paribas Showdown featuring Maria Sharapova, Caroline Wozniacki, Federer and Roddick on March 5 in New York. The tickets start at $50 and are available at the Madison Square Garden box office, online and all Ticketmaster outlets.

• Check out Adam Sandler with the Georgia Tech women's tennis team.

• Emma of London: "Have you seen this video about Rafa and Nole? It's awesome!"

• Christina McHale and Irina Falconi are among the players who are set to represent the United States at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, from Oct. 17-22.

• Todd Martin used a wooden racket to close out his victory against Michael Chang in a recent Champions Series match.

• Ivan H. of New York: "Long-lost siblings for you: Robin Soderling and Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons. Believe me, it was tough to find a photo of Robin smiling."

Have a good week, everyone!

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